Day 6. Another early start followed by much discussion about the plans for the day. Bill went for a run to White sands beach and returned very sweaty despite the early hour! All agreed that today was the ideal day for the Volcano driving tour. Chris needed a rest day before his race and so this seemed a good opportunity to make the 4 hour round trip to the Hawaii Volcano National Park.
After a substantial breakfast of smoked bacon and gourmet fried eggs we set off at 8.30 heading down Ali'i Drive and around the southern tip of the island, passing through coffee growing country. After about 45 minutes we stopped at the southernmost coffee shop on Big Island and ordered some excellent take-out coffee. Shortly afterwards we arrived at the Black Sand Beach, famous not just for its volcanic black sand, but also for is fresh water pools and its turtles.
It's a wonderful spot, with glistening black sand and pebbles - very hot to walk on! Behind the beach is an unexpected thing - a beautiful lake full of water lilies and other flowering aquatic plants surrounded by lush vegetation. We sat and drank our coffee amongst the palm trees, played hide and seek and watched the surf. Turtle heads, tails and flippers popped up from time to time, and then a Hawksbill Turtle appeared on the beach, looking exhausted, and lay dozing in the sun for us all to admire!
We drove on east towards Volcano village and the Kilauea Volcano. We headed first to the Hawaii Volcano National Park visitor centre to learn more about the volcano and lava flows and to collect some maps and guides.
Today we were on a limited time schedule. Chris had to be back in Kona by 6pm for his Ironman welcome dinner and race briefing, so we knew we needed to leave the volcano by 3pm. We planned a four hour driving tour along Crater Rim Road, down Chain of Craters Road to the sea, and then back, taking in the sights on our return so as to better judge our time progress.
First stop, the Volcano Grocery Store for snickers bars, rolls, salami, salad and ranch dressing for our picnic lunch on the move.
The trip was brilliant! From the top of Chain of Craters Road, there was an amazing transition from fern-filled rain forest to vast barren lava fields, with impressive views along the coast. We drove south and were amazed by the bleak volcanic scenery and the different types of lava to left and right, and the small clumps of fern and small trees and bushes that were somehow growing there!
Every so often we came to an area of interest and got out of the car to explore and take photos. We arrived at the coast to find a really helpful and knowledgeable park ranger with plaits who was stationed in the US airforce at Fairford during the war. She explained about the lava flow in 1969 that flowed down from Kilauea to the sea, destroying the road and cutting off a community on the other side. She also explained that although there is still lava flowing above and behind the crust, there is none currently flowing into the sea and the only lava currently flowing is on private land and thus inaccessible for us to view except from a helicopter. She also explained that we should try to return to the caldera at night when the lava in the Kilauea crater would be visible, glowing red.
We followed the path down to the coast where the newly formed lava is being eroded by the waves leaving an impressive coastline of caves, arches and sea stacks. The Holei Sea Arch was a spectacular example, surrounded by white surf and wheeling sea birds.
After this we set off back up Chain of Craters road to view some of those craters and to look out over the lava fields. We paused to assemble and eat our picnic lunch half way up the route at Holei Pali lookout and gazed up at Mauna Ulu, the volcano that last erupted in 1969-1974. It looked grey and forbidding as distant puffs of grey smoke rise from its cinder cone.
Further up the road we stopped and walked along a portion of the old road at Alanui Kahakai that was covered by this lava flow. The whole are is covered by the two types of lava - the smooth slightly shiny pahohoe lava and the dry tough crumbly looking a'a lava that forms lumps and boulders everywhere. In addition there is tephra - a froth filled lava that has cooled as pumice cinders. The end result was rather like a pavement whose Tarmac has melted in the heat and re-set in random swirling patterns, adjacent to mountains of irregular black rubble, not dissimilar to an avalanche. The bleached branches of dead trees looked strange and desolate and were surrounded by piles of broken lava crust. Amongst these were lava tunnels criss-crossing the area so that in places it sounded hollow as you walked, and in places they were broken so that we could see the hollow tube inside.
The collapsed craters towards the top of the road were particularly impressive and especially so the deep hole in the ground called the 'Devil's Throat' - described in our book as being 'impressively sheer and a genuine heart stopper. It goes straight down.' There is also a warning to take care at the edge as it looks 'pretty fragile'. We agreed whole heartedly with all these statements and posed cautiously near the edge for photographs.
Back at the top, and on Crater Rim Road we drove west to the Jaggar Museum and Hawaiian Volcano Observatory that is next to the Kilauea overlook from where it is possible to view the crater and massive surrounding caldera. The floor of the volcano was grey with puffs of smoke rising. By night the lava can be seen glowing red - we agreed to save that spectacle for another day.
Rather entertainingly we arrived at the visitor centre at the same time as a bus load of other tourists, two of whom were overheard telling one of the Rangers that they had come for 'the 3.30 eruption'. Sadly the volcano did not oblige!
Then we were out on the road again, driving east to Hilo, and then west again, along Saddle Road. This is a relatively new piece of road, 52 miles long, connecting the east and west coasts and rises up to 657 feet right of over the saddle between the two volcanoes of Mauna Kea (13,796 feet) and Mauna Loa (13,677 feet).
The route was lined by trees at first but then became bleaker, with few trees or other feature. A heavy rain shower and then dense fog lead to a desperate fumble through the Nissan handbook to try to discover which steering wheel stick /button did what! We passed the turn to Mauna Kea observatory and saw the six mile road to that snaking up and away into the clouds.
We arrived back in Kona in the familiar hot and humid tropical sunshine, and in good time to drop Chris at his dinner before heading home to watch the sunset on our balcony with the aid of the inevitable cold beer and macadamia nuts. Mike ran 10k whilst the rest of us are and drank and contemplated the view and the surfers still surfing in the ocean outside our balcony. The young boy finally left the water as darkness fell!
On Mike's return we swam in the pool and then headed up into town for dinner and our rendez-vous with Chris.
Tonight it was Java Lava for their amazing menu of delicious generous portions of healthy food like my Kobb salad with chicken, Bill's enormous fish tacos .... and the boys' Big Island pizzas with pulled pork, chilli sauce, pineapple and more cheese than you can imagine. After dinner it's back to Humpy's for our traditional Big Wave golden ale. The beer tap was broken so we reluctantly accepted an alternative called Bikini Blonde. Quite acceptable.
Slowly around us we noticed parties being joined by athletes wearing orange wrist bands. The dinner and briefing must have finished. Sure enough a very happy Chris arrived and regaled us with tales about the dinner and information about the event on Saturday. He also told us about one competitor who is a double amputee. He lost both arms in an electrical accident at work. He now does Ironman races. He does the swim on his back, just using his legs. To cycle he plugs his arm stumps into the handle bars. If he falls off, he climbs back on and if he gets a puncture, he changes the tyre with his feet. How utterly amazing and humbling.
Having clarified some other information about race day and starting to feel very excited about the event, we headed for home, and apart from a late night trip to Safeway for cough sweets and breakfast provisions, it was the end of another very happy day.